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2013-01-27 22:53:33 (UTC)

MIGRANTS: Letter Writing

I want to add this short essay as a sort of addendum to my comments on letter writing, my letter writing and the letter writing of pioneers, migrants, and all those who leave their homeland for some other land because it provides some historical context particularly for me as a person with Welsh ancestry and it seems particularly relevant to this autobiography. I am indebted in my writing of this short essay which follows to a Bill Jones and his article Writing Back: Welsh Emigrants and their Correspondence in the Nineteenth Century, North American Journal of Welsh Studies, Vol. 5, No.1, Winter 2005.

Eric Richards has remarked in relation to British and Irish people who moved to Australia in the nineteenth century that migrants were “more likely to reflect on their condition and their lives than those who stayed at home.” I’m not sure if pioneers in the Baha’i community did more reflecting on their condition and lives than those who stayed at home, but there is no question I did a sizeable amount of reflecting and I documented a portion of it in my letters, and after about 1995, in my emails. I am also inclined to think that, as the decades advance and as collections of the letters and emails of pioneers take form, they will reflect Eric Richards’ comment.

As is true of most European peoples whose histories took on an international dimension as result of nineteenth-century migrations, that emigrant letters became the largest and arguably the most important source for the mentalities, activities and attitudes of ordinary migrants. Commentators have long emphasised the importance of emigrant letters in illuminating the human and personal aspects of the experience of migration.

Just at the time when the collections of Welsh migrant letters were first being published in the 1960s, my first letters as a Baha’i pioneer in Canada—a pioneer with a Welsh ancestry--were being written and collected. A continuity of little to no significnace to the outside world or even within the Baha’i community at the time was taking place. Perhaps, in the long run it would be a continuity with some significance. Time would tell.

Alan Conway’s collection, published in 1961, The Welsh in America: Letters from the Immigrants appeared just as my own collection was taking in its first letter. By the time H. S. Chapman’s article about letters from Welsh migrants “From Llanfair to Fairhaven,” in Transactions of the Anglesey Antiquarian Society and Field Club and Letters from America: Captain David Evans of Talsarnau, my own collection of letters were beginning to assume a substantial body of material for future archivists and historians, writers and analysts. I belonged to a religion within which the letter had assumed more than an insignificant proportion and those mysterious dispensations of Providence would determine whether my letters and those of other international pioneers would take on any significance. As a non-betting man I would say they will.

This brief analysis can not do justice to the many dimensions that collections of letters from Baha’i international pioneers embrace, although I hope what I write here contributes in a small way by conveying something of the diversity and complexity of the subject. I am only discussing somewhat impressionistically a few of the functions of the letters of pioneers and the relationships between them and certain aspects of the process of pioneering. I also want to discuss certain features of the letters as texts, examine some of their contexts and subtexts, and try to explain some of the complex ways in which this correspondence came into existence. My remarks here are limited, though, for this is a short essay and deals with its subject in a general and personal way making no attempt to be comprehensive and well-researched. I seek to shed light on some of the experiential aspects of emigrant letter writing and pioneer email writing and receiving in the period: 1971-2021, the period in which I was myself an international pioneer.

A collection of letters like my own are so unlike any of the nineteenth century collections from European or United Kingdom migrants to the colonies, the new world, any world outside of the Eurocentric world migrants had been born in. Their letters, their history, production and reception, intersected with, contributed to and were shaped by key contemporaneous developments in that part of the nineteenth century in which these letters were written. These included the conspicuous increase in literacy, the emergence of mass print culture and formal state-based education, the expansion of the postal service and of reading and letter-writing in general, the social and cultural practices of the time together with the growth of instructional literature devoted to a range of cultural and educational pursuits.

In the case of my letters, only a few were written back to my country of origin to “explain” or “convince” anyone of the value of this new country as a pioneer destination. My letters, for the most part, were produced and intersected with developments in my country of destination. The affects of the spread of media technology: TV, coloured TV, DVDs, video and by the 21st century large-screen plasma TVs, the computer; social and political developments locally, nationally and internationally; the decline of letter writing and the increase in the use of the email; the expansion of the Baha’i community from, say, 200 thousand in 1953 to, say, 800 thousand in 1971 and to nearly six million in 2003, indeed, the list of influences is endless. This brief statement can not do the subject justice. I leave that to future writers and students of the subject of letter writing and pioneering in the Baha’i community.

Numerous scholars have emphasised that the writing and receiving of letters had a high priority for those emigrants who engaged in correspondence. Without denying the importance of emigrant letters in any way, however, we should be careful not to exaggerate and over-romanticise their significance to all emigrants and to the emigration process in general. This is equally true of the letters and the emails of pioneers in the last half of the first century of our Formative Age: 1971-2021. Undoubtedly they have immense importance as the main, if not the only, practical method of keeping in touch with relatives, friends and neighbours back in the Old Country or country of origin. Yet letters and emails also had certain limitations that undermined their effectiveness in these regards. Not every emigrant or pioneer wrote letters and emails. The pleasure taken in the act of writing was not universal. In the 19th century not everyone could write; in the last half of the 20th century virtually everyone could write, at least in the western world, but new influences kept many from writing more than the perfunctory item.

Some emigrants in the 19th and pioneers in the 20th wrote only very occasionally and the number who wrote regularly in both centuries was perhaps smaller still. Although the email certainly resulted in an explosion in the sheer quantity of written communication from pioneers and among the general population. Further, the importance attached to the act of writing to people on either side of the Atlantic and/or the Pacific varied from family to family and changed over time. For so many families, one of the most intense consequences of emigration was disintegration or, perhaps the word ephemeralization is better. The situation was often created in which connections with family and friends were broken or they became tenuous at best. There were also other important elements to the process of maintaining correspondence that could complicate matters and even restrict the letter’s effectiveness in keeping families together and keeping friendships alive. If letters were chains that bound distant kith and kin and connections with Baha’i communities of origin, they were often fragile or poor links for many a pioneer. When the links were strong, the letters and emails were often thrown away.

Pioneer and migrant correspondence was a multi-faceted, complex and sometimes ambiguous, even contradictory phenomenon. There is no doubt that the relationship between the letter/email writing of some emigrants and some pioneers was characterised more by apathy, neglect and avoidance than by emotional intensity and deep psychological need. Some people preferred gardening, watching TV and engaging in any number of a cornucopia of activities that popular and elite culture had made available in the late twentieth century. The hobby apparatus of many a leisure time activity became immense as the 21st century turned its corner. So many people really did not like to write and when they did they saw its only significance in personal terms, in terms of their relationship with the person they were writing to. This was only natural.

Personal preference and circumstances as well as factors far beyond the control of emigrants/pioneers and their families could limit the effectiveness of the letter/email as a means of communication. Yet, for other transnational families, the letters received in and sent from the country of origin were all as precious as life itself. Written correspondence was the principal means of sustaining that transnationality and a future age would collect and analyse this sustaining force and this often ephemeral reality.

The practice of writing, receiving and responding to letters in the 19th century and, say, until the ninth stage of history beginning in 1953--from a country of origin and, say, America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Patagonia, South Africa and elsewhere was an essential element in the process of emigration and pioneering and the lived experience of emigrants/pioneers. It had a centrality that would be lost, though, in the second half of the twentieth century as the letter was challenged by mass use of the telephone and, later, e-mail, and by cheaper and faster overseas travel.

I would suggest that because of their richness as literary artifacts, their symbolic importance and their revelatory power, the position that communications of pioneers beginning in the nineteenth-century and until, say, 1953, should occupy, if not the very best place in the house of the Baha’i literary heritage, then at least a prominent spot that might draw the visitor’s eye as the threshold is crossed. Further, like families and friends in nineteenth-century, we need to bring emigrant letters out to study them more often, to pass them around and scrutinise and discuss their contents. In a very real sense those large and laden letters that take wing across the oceans, still await — and deserve — our responses.